For almost a century scientists have used puzzles to study what they call insight thinking, the leaps of understanding that seem to come out from nowhere without additional work of analysis.
Puzzle solving is such an ancient worldwide practice specifically because it is banking on creative insight. Modern neuroscientists are beginning to tap its source.
Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused.
Unlike the cryptic social and professional mazes of real life, puzzles are reassuringly soluble, but like any serious problem, they require more than mere intellect to crack.
All along, researchers debated the definitions of insight and analysis, and some have doubted that the two are any more than sides of the same coin.
Yet in an authoritative review of the research, the psychologists Jonathan Schooler and Joseph Melcher concluded that the abilities most strongly correlated with insight problem solving but not significantly correlated in solving analytical problems.
Either way, creative problems solving usually requires both analysis and sudden out of the box insight.
Dr. Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and John Kounios, psychologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, have imaged people’s brains as they prepare to tackle a puzzle but before they have seen it.
Those whose brains show a strongly correlated positive moods, turn out to be more likely to solve the puzzles with sudden insight than with trial and error.
Previous research has found that cells in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex are active when people widen or narrow their attention.
In insight puzzle solving, the brain seems to widen its attention, in effect making itself more open to distraction.
Researchers, at the University of Toronto found that the visual areas, people in positive and relaxing moods picked up more background detail, even when they were instructed to block out distracting information during a computer task.
The findings fit with several experiments that had been performed linking brain in relaxing mood solves word puzzle easily.